Originally published July 2016
Hello Everyone! I am writing this on the day of the Summer Solstice, Midsummer’s Day if you go by the meteorological calendar, or the beginning of Summer, as noted by the astronomical clock. What is the difference I hear you cry! Well the former is based on the annual temperature cycle whereas the astronomical seasons are calculated using the position of the Earth in relation to the Sun. Given that Phoebus Apollo has not deemed to visit our corner of the country for any length of time this year, I am rather hoping the astronomers have it right!
Despite our rather insipid attempt at heading into Summer, the past few months have given us more than a few moments of enjoyment in Ma Nature’s demesne. The wild flowers never fail to delight as they sweep across the woodlands producing a different coloured carpet every few weeks. The constant rain has ensured that all the Shrubs and Trees continue to provide a magnificent spectacle as their flowers are replaced with leaves of vibrant green. Many people in the village will be aware of the non-native plant of interest in Crowhurst at present, the exotic and evil-smelling Voodoo Lily, Dracunculus vulgaris. Following an anonymous tip-off from Chas Pearce about a colony of these Balkanites lurking around the back of the pub, Lorna and I went to investigate. Not knowing if we were about to face a Voodoo curse, a Fire-Drake or a Vampyre, we armed ourselves with rabbit’s feet (still on the rabbit!), the cross of St George (borrowed off someone’s wing mirror) and the last jar of Garlic Pesto from the fridge. As it transpired, none of it was needed. However, in a fit of ecological self-sacrifice Lorna shoved me into the nettles and, in the name of science, urged me to stick my nose into the great, purple flower. My protestations that, as a vegetarian, I was not familiar with the smell of rotting flesh and thus unable to verify the legendary pong the plant was rumoured to give off were in vain so I closed my eyes, thought of Darwin and complied. Fortunately, for my olfactory system, the odour does not last beyond the first few days of the flower opening and I was spared the indignity of passing out in the bed of stingers surrounding the group of alien plants!
In addition to floral displays we have been treated to the sights and sounds of the winged fauna that have braved the unsettled weather patterns. Bats flit above our heads in the twilight, bees are buzzing from flower to flower and various butterflies are decorating the woods and meadows. By the time you see this, Dear Reader, we will have had our second Moth Weekend in Quarry Wood – click here for more pics.
I must admit that at the moment there is one animal, a bird to be precise, that is testing my love of all of Ma Nature’s denizens to the very limit. I blame sleep deprivation as the cause of my highly unusual state of irritation with some of the Feathered Folk, brought about by the sounds of a toy gun outside of my window in the very early hours (see Dawn’s Cacophony-July 2015). I refer, of course, to our wonderful-looking Eurasian, or Common, Magpie (Pica pica); possibly our most recognisable as well as unpopular bird in the UK.
Even as I lie there in a state of bleary-eyed frustration, I have tried to count the different sounds emanating from the beaks of these noisy characters. It is very likely that I am lucky enough to have a family group in close vicinity as fledglings stay with their parents in a small flock for up to six weeks. Despite the apparent squabbling, they remain very close to each other during this time. I have watched up to four of my Magpies on the bird feeder together, even appearing to feed each other with the selection of snacks on offer. This is not unusual behaviour, in fact, magpies have been observed partaking in a wide range of social rituals and interactions including an apparent display of grief. Gatherings of large numbers of the birds to resolve territorial issues or Parliaments, as they are known as, are raucous and often acrimonious affairs. In a way it is comforting to know that our own political system imitates a tried and trusted regime used by a Family of animals that pre-dates us by several million years!
Like many of the Corvidae, or Crow Family, Magpies mate for life and will occupy the same territory from one year to the next. The bird displays the Corvid traits of high levels of intelligence and individual eccentricities. Studies show that the brain-to-body ratio of the Magpie is equal to that of many Primates including H. sapiens, and I suspect higher than many individuals of that particular species! They clearly display the use of episodic-like memory when they make use of food they had hidden many months before. There is evidence also to suggest that Magpies are the only non-mammal species with the capability of self-recognition in a mirrored surface.
As is often the case with intelligent creatures, whatever the species, they are treated with suspicion, dislike and often seen as a threat. The only conclusion I can come to is that the human psyche is ridiculously insecure and that we certainly have not evolved anywhere near as far as we like to believe. Magpies have suffered the same fate as Crows and Ravens for hundreds of years as they are seen as harbingers of death and misfortune. Their popularity has not been helped by their omnivorous feeding habits during the breeding season when they raid other birds’ nests for eggs and fledglings to supplement their diet. This has led to the misconception that not only are Magpies thieves and robbers, but are causing the fall in songbird populations throughout the land. It is true that Magpie numbers have quadrupled in Britain and Ireland in the last thirty-five years, but they are recovering from centuries of persecution and despite being popular with farmers they were hunted mercilessly from the middle of the 19th Century through to the First World War. Various studies have shown that the rise in the Magpie population has not had a significant effect on songbirds. Rather we are guilty, once again, of denying our own role in the decline in biodiversity and making the Corvid into a scapegoat.
As you would expect with such a notorious creature as the Magpie, there are many old wives’ tales and superstitions that have been passed down through the ages. Even today people will greet a single bird with Good morning Mr Magpie, how is your lady wife today? This counteracts the old rhyme One for sorrow, two for joy and so on until you get to twenty in some versions. The theory is that by asking after the Magpie’s wife it implies that there are two of them and the person can ready themselves for a goodly helping of joy rather than the opposite.
The Magpie is definitely worth our respect, any negative opinion we have about the bird is almost certainly the result of superstition and circumstance, though we may be very loath to admit it. Certainly it is worthy of a few weeks of early morning disturbance on my behalf and I look forward to delving into the world of Mr Magpie again in the future!
One for sorrow, two for mirth,
Three for a wedding, four for a birth,
Five for silver, six for gold,
Seven for a secret not to be told.
Eight for heaven, nine for hell,
And ten for the devil’s own sel’.
Denis Martindale 2011
No, they do not like shiny objects, that myth was debunked a few years ago! Have a great Summer and enjoy any lie-ins you can get!
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Image credits: voodoo lily & moths: Lorna Neville; img 12: Magpie by Erik Paterson used under Creative Commons License 2.0; img 13: Magpie Fledglings by Tatiana Bulyonkova used under CC2.0; img 13: Masters of the Castle by Pierre Pouliquin used under CC2.0; img 14: Magpie by rjp used under CC2.0; img 15: Flight of the Magpies by Mikko Karvonen used under CC2.0; Magpie by Tony Hisgett used under CC2.0; img 16: Magpie by Tony Hisgett used under CC2.0.